Monday, 15 December 2014

FILM REVIEW: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

As year draws to its close, we’re due to embark on yet another journey to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. All of that thanks to director Peter Jackson and The Battle of the Five Armies, the third chapter of his The Hobbit trilogy. In what is supposed to be a final film ever set in his fictional land (unlikely!) our Dwarven, Elven and Human characters are entangled in a massive conflict over the control of Erebor and hearth stored under the Lonely Mountain. Friendships are being tested, blood being shed, lessons learned. Virtually everything one can expect from grand finale like this.

It is, of course, naïve and unrealistic to expect that this film will rectify and reverse everything wrong about two previous chapters. Indeed, The Battle of the Five Armies suffers from many of the sins these films were plagued by – choppy narrative, bloated running time, an unnecessarily excessive use of computer graphics, uneven pacing. However, what where it does exceed is in its increased focus on single narrative, probably for the very first time in The Hobbit trilogy. It feels less scattered around, largely due to it being set mostly in one location. The board for ensuing conflict was set already by The Desolation of Smaug and there is no exposition as such. And that is something quite new for Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations.

Another strong point is an emphasis on character development and interactions, an ingredient criminally absent from both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, save for a few cursory elements. In The Battle of the Five Armies, the execution of those elements might still be somewhat clunky but at least it’s there. Both Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman rise to the occasion and provide their characters with some emotion. Bilbo, curiously underused in a series of films revolved around his character, finally gets to fulfil a role in those and adding some necessary good-natured hobbit warmth into the grim plotline. At the same time, Armitage gets to expand upon both gloomy and warm aspects of Thorin Oakenshield as he’s battling his inherited greedy sickness. The usual suspects Ian McKellen is always a joy to watch on screen and his Gandalf definitely doesn’t disappoint, as expected.

What doesn’t work quite so well, however, is the battle spectacle itself. While all Tolkien-based films used CGI heavily to help enhance epic struggles portrayed on screen, there is a sense that The Battle of the Five Armies was filmed almost entirely in front of green screen. Gone are the breathtaking and lovely landscapes of New Zealand. It’s hard to care for an hour of swarming animated characters fighting other animated characters, with occasional shots of live actors swing a sword once or twice. There’s hardly any drama or tension in that and Middle-earth feels smaller than ever.

What’s even more frustrating, it turns out that many plot points and characters from previous two films were introduced for absolutely no reason. Sylvester McCoy, so prominently featured as Radagast in An Unexpected Journey, barely makes a cameo in both subsequent films. Same with Mikael Persbrandt’s Beorn. One has to wonder why Peter Jackson even bothered including those two, given their contribution to the overall story is quite minimal and could have been achieved in more efficient ways. On the other hand, the completely new Elven character of Tauriel, as played by Evangeline Lilly, could have used an expansion. Fortunately, Luke Evans’ Aragorn-inspired Bard the Bowman and Lee Pace’s Thranduil get a lot more screen time this time and this film is so much better for it.

Technically, The Battle of the Five Armies is adequate but strangely unpolished in some areas. Many of the effects seem unfinished and unconvincing, especially the opening fiery destruction of Lake-town and climactic confrontation between Thorin and pale orc Azog. The musical score by Howard Shore, such a crucial ingredient of The Lord of the Rings, is an accomplished and intelligent as ever but feels lost and neglected in overcrowded sound mix. Editorially, this film feels a bit awkward and uneven, as did the previous two. It will be interesting to see if the extended cut, due late next year, will change that.

The final chapter in Peter Jackson’s six-film series is ultimately successful in its basic entertainment factor but it falls short as a piece of epic fantasy cinema. The ultimate failure of The Hobbit trilogy is not as painful as the one suffered by Star Wars fans a decade ago but there’s an undeniable sense that something went terribly wrong in the development process. Still, strong performances from excellent cast and significantly tighter and focused narrative make up for many shortcomings.

- Karol

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Thursday, 20 November 2014

FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Earshot

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Angel and Buffy are undergoing a bit of a rough patch after Angel pretends to lose his soul to get Faith to confess and ends up getting a bit too close in the process. Faith is now working full time for the Mayor and everyone knows the Ascension is on the way, but not what that is.

Even in a run as strong as the latter half of the third season, Earshot stands out for a number of reasons; for a start, it's an excellent standalone episode. On re-watching it, it struck me that this is the most Buffyish of Buffy episodes, packing in everything that makes it so astute and subversive. After tangling with two demons, Buffy gets bled on, giving her a nasty little rash on her hand and telepathy. Obviously. Initially useful, revealing that someone in the school is going to kill everyone, the new gift soon turns against Buffy and starts driving her mad. Whilst Angel goes about putting together a cure with Giles, the gang try to work out who is about to go on a murder spree.

For most of the early seasons' run, the monster as metaphors forms the background for the majority of episodes. Earshot subverts that slightly by making it a bit more literal; the monsters are the high school residents themselves and their thoughts and actions. The lack of empathy amongst the students for those around them is something apparent right from the moment Buffy begins hearing things, even amongst her friends. Jonathan wants to kill himself because no one notices him and he feels invisible. Buffy acquires her powers just in time to hear his cry for help and find him in time to save him and that insight also allows her to feel everyone's pain as acutely as she feels her own.

That scene in the clock tower, one of two written by Joss Whedon for Earshot, is one of the most powerful scenes that Buffy has ever produced, playing on those feelings of isolation to allow for the audience to empathise with Jonathan, even though at first we suspect him of being the wanna mass murderer. High school shootings in America are still a tricky topic to approach and Earshot aired only a few months after the Columbine massacre (it had been delayed from its original broadcast due to those events), meaning the potential subject matter was particularly sensitive. Even though it transpired to be a suicide attempt, something else that Buffy has tackled before, the episode handles both very carefully to produce something that isn't at all exploitative. Buffy once again saves someone from the monster, but here, it's simply by listening to someone who feels invisible.

Of course, the person actually planning the school attacks is a part of the institution itself in the crazy lunch lady attempting to poison everyone. And you can kind of understand where she's coming from about high schoolers being awful, even if everyone who thinks that doesn't resort to rat poison to make a point. It's also another way in which Earshot subverts the usual Buffy formula. It is a human perpetrating the crime with the demon acting more as a catalyst for the episode's events rather than its root cause. Human suffering is at the heart of Buffy; it's what makes it so relatable despite it coming with all the genre trappings of vampires, werewolves and other things with sharp, pointy teeth.

As I started with the end, it's only fitting that I go back to the beginning because the cold open forms the final piece of the ultimate Buffy episode. It recalls the very first scene of Welcome to the Hellmouth when Darla goes from being the scared blonde to the monster in a simple turn of the head, kicking off Buffy's horror subversions. The opening scenes finds Buffy on the run from two mouthless demons, pulling a classic horror film run and stumble in order to lure them into a trap. It's one of the episode's many comedic moments (something I've not gone into too much detail about it here) and just reminds us that Buffy's anything but conventional a lot of the time.

Ultimately though, Earshot is a plea for better communication, through which the majority of the episode's problems would have been solved. This is shown in Buffy's scene with Angel when she realises that she can't hear what he's thinking and is forced to say out loud how she feels, prompting him to return in kind. By the end of the episode, their relationship is back on track because she gets the answer she was looking for (and he fed a demon heart too her. Romance, people). If someone had noticed Jonathan feeling the way he did before he wanted to kill himself and took the time to find out what the matter was, it would never have got to that stage. 

Although Earshot may not be in my top ten of episodes of all time (that's a tough list to crack), it's probably the episode I would show to someone to convince them of Buffy's merits and calling cards. Everything about it is meticulously constructed and pretty much perfect, not to mention heartwrenchingly relatable.

Quote of the Week:

Buffy - [to Jonathan]: My life happens on occasion to suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it’s not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they’re too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening.
Let's Get Trivial: Anthony Head added in the bit where he walks into the tree at the end of the episode to make the scene funnier. It worked.

Demonology 101: Buffy worrying about having a tail is an in-joke because Joss Whedon hated tails on demons, thinking they always looked unrealistic.

- Becky

You can read Becky's review of Enemies here.

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Wednesday, 12 November 2014

FILM REVIEW: Interstellar

Christopher Nolan has become quite a polarising and controversial filmmaker in the past six years of his career. It is interesting to see how his work is scrutinised and discussed to no end – both in real life and cyberspace. With each new title coming out, both fans and detractors arm themselves with same old arguments before moving into battle, which can be curiously described with Joker’s “immovable object vs. unstoppable force” speech from The Dark Knight. Powered with actual physics research and ambition exceeding both Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar is almost certain to divide audiences even further.

In this science fiction epic, the Earth is plagued by global natural disasters that affect crops and drastically reduce number of food to sustain the population. As a result, once gadget-hungry, war-mongering society turns back to its agricultural roots of “caretakers” and largely abandons technological progress. Matthew McConaughey plays a former NASA pilot who now lives on a farm and shares his passion for everything scientific with his bright daughter Murph. Eventually, Cooper comes back to his initial profession and, in quite unlikely circumstances, becomes a spacecraft pilot in a bold mission to save human race from extinction. This dangerous plan, which involves travelling through a recently formed wormhole, sends group of scientist to leave our solar system in a search of new home. Yet, Cooper never can quite forgive himself for leaving his family behind and this paternal guilt will become a crucial element in this quest.

Science fiction is a difficult genre to portray. There’s a fine balance between wonder and plausibility that almost every director needs to walk in order to create a convincing but entertaining cinema. One of Interstellar’s biggest disadvantages is, ironically, its size and scope. For the film of this budget and ambition ($165 million), it is impossible to create a fully intellectual visual experience. Instead, this interesting concept is aided by heavy dialogue-driven exposition to guide general audience through this project. While one can agree this addition might be sometimes dry and even clunky, this element is nevertheless a necessary to secure financing and, yes, box office returns.

The film finds it biggest asset in the very presence of Matthew McCounaghey. His Cooper is the warmest and most sympathetic character yet to appear in a Christopher Nolan film. He manages to navigate a calculated script and inject it with necessary humanity and genuine emotion. The connection he forms with his daughter is a strong and enduring one and that’s also thanks to both Jessica Chastain and young Mackenzie Foy (as well as Ellen Burstyn) who play the part at different points in time. Anne Hathaway moves even farther from her romantic comedy persona with a role of biologist Amelia Brand. While largely a secondary character, she is nevertheless burdened with the task to sell one of the tougher concepts of this film. As usual, the cast is very impressive; the director manages to recruit many bigger names to fill in smaller parts (including the ever-reliable Michael Caine). All of that helps to create a truly epic scope to this story.

Nolan, true to his own sensibilities, never allows his film to be too visually showy. While there are plenty of nods to Kubrick and other great artists of cinema, he chooses to retain his own controlled documentarian style. He puts the camera in seemingly neutral places and often doesn’t show off clichéd money shots for their own sake, in a way some other directors probably would. There are no balletic images of travelling space ships, nor elaborate kinetic action setpieces that the audience were treated to last year with Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Instead, a lot of the time is focused on portraying the mundane and every-day nature of space exploration routines. This dry approach will almost certainly not appeal to viewers expecting a more visually extrovert film. It will, however, enhance the sense of verisimilitude, especially after repeat viewings.

On top of that, there’s something terribly mechanic about the way Nolan constructs his projects. The director seems to be obsessed with dense screenwriting and rigorous structures that guide his narratives in a steady rhythm of dry expository dialogue and steadily increasing editorial pacing (often enhanced by overwhelming sound design). It can be quite a bullying experience for audiences used to more conventional breezy storytelling of classic Hollywood. As a result, his films can often boggle minds with their overwhelming flow of information. And it has very little to do with the message being too complex or elusive. In fact, he might be the only mainstream filmmaker whose films are much more enjoyable once we know the ending and Interstellar might be the best example yet in that respect. Packed with jargon and quantum physics theories, this 3-hour epic might alienate mass audience to an even greater degree than his notorious, but decidedly easier to swallow, Inception.

The biggest gamble the director is taking with Interstellar, however, is ironically the human element. His hard science-fiction approach will certainly impress cinéphiles as well as s-f fans. The loving relationship of Cooper and Murph and its transcendental meaning might push it slightly too far for some people. And yet, even quantum physicists are ready to agree that once you reach a certain threshold in pursuit of knowledge, the lines between empirical science and metaphysics become blurred and hard to define. After all, experts in both those fields seem to agree on the very conclusion that everything started with some sort of “primal information”. In this light, the supposed sentimentality Christopher Nolan is succumbing to is less about cheapening the concept and more about finding this missing but crucial divine ingredient.

This very emotional component is further enhanced by surprisingly tender and thoughtful score from Hans Zimmer. Gone are the propulsive ostinati of The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, the plague that spread over all of film music in the past decade. Instead, the composer employs church organ and gentle string sections (with occasional woodwinds) to paint his epic but intimate fresco. What’s additionally surprising is that Nolan decided to give his story some breathing space and there are large chunks of film with no music at all which is quite a departure.

As with two Batman films, a large chunk was filmed employing IMAX cameras and Interstellar marks the first time in history they were used to capture handheld footage. Quite a feat for Dutch/Swedish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, given how heavy these things are. Special effects are absolutely first rate - every trick in the book was employed (with some new ones) to convince the audience of their absence. It is all helped by the fact CG imagery is largely used to compliment mechanical techniques, not to steal the show.

Ultimately, Interstellar is somewhat stuck between two worlds: the true hard SF and crowd-pleasing blockbuster. As usual, Christopher Nolan ventures into some interesting territory but also feels the inevitable urge to still hold audience’s hand. And while there is some impressive imagery conjured for this film, there is no fast-paced action to distract from its grand ambition. It will be interesting to see if the general audience is ready to accept a three-hour slow moving epic that really requires one to pay attention and what sort of place will it ultimately take in the pantheon of this genre. In any case, it’s certainly worth watching on the grandest screen imaginable. And perhaps more than once.

- Karol

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Monday, 10 November 2014

TV REVIEW: Star Wars Rebels

Star Wars Rebels is on the up. After a decent pilot (even after a special edition with extra Darth Vader) and two fun but not especially great episodes, it moved into third gear with last week's Rise of the Old Masters, a brilliant show that gave us insights into Kanan's history with the Jedi and the reasoning behind his reluctance to train Ezra, as well as properly introducing the Inquisitor and the levels he's happy to go to in his mission to hunt down the last Jedi. The Inquisitor showed he's pretty tasty in combat (even with that cheating lightsaber), and Jason Isaac's vocal talents are appropriately evil. Now we're following Ezra while he's off to the Imperial Academy in episode four, Breaking Ranks.

Once again, our fearless band of rebels need to intercept a shipment of something, this week's special cargo being "kyber crystals" that the Empire are planning on adding to their arsenal. We're not told a huge amount about them, only that they must stop the Imperial navy transporting them, although keen Star Wars fans in the know may be aware that Kyber crystals made appearances in an earlier draft of Episode IV, as well as its follow-up novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye and a couple of episodes of The Clone Wars.

Of course, Hera and crew don't know where the cargo is, so Ezra is sent undercover to the local Imperial training centre to find the co-ordinates of the transport. On the base he finds a surprising ally in his quest to outwit the Empire, although as per usual the dastardly Agent Kallus is in close proximity, as is the Inquisitor and a ton of the usual cool hardware. One thing that immediately stood out in this episode is how well the kids are written. Breaking Ranks contains a fair few young 'uns training to be stormtroopers, and in the franchise's past children have never really come across well - all you have to do is remember "Are you an angel?" and shudder.

Ezra of course is central to this, and his maturity has begun to grow with Kanan's teachings. Fellow cadet Zare has a seriousness to him and understandably so; he signed up to search for his sister, who previously joined the Empire only to subsequently disappear. It's a very Ezra-centric episode, with frequent interludes with Hera and Kanan engaging the convoy carrying the crystals and Zeb, Satine and Chopper relegated to cameos, and provides some interesting locations, namely "The Well" - a pit in the training base floor that the cadets must climb out of via some very Mario-esque flying platforms.

There's an interesting side to Ezra here, one that shows a possible alternate life for him had he not become entangled with the Ghost's crew. He gets on well with his comrades and fits in, but you hope he'd never had ended up there. It reminds me of the original Star Wars; it took me a while to figure out Luke was complaining that his uncle wouldn't let him join the Empire, ironic considering he spends the rest of the film fighting it. Even with his friends Luke wouldn't have lasted long, and would have likely jumped ship with Biggs. The same with Ezra: whatever his fate, he would have rather embraced any other than standing alongside the likes of Kallus and the Inquisitor.

The action was a lot of fun, and it's great to see more of the AT-DP walkers in action. The space battle between the Ghost and three Imperial cruisers was impressive, and I like the use of the Phantom as a decoy. The scenes showed more of Hera's excellent piloting skills, and the constant outnumbering of the group versus the Empire is resulting in some excellent dramatic tension, and just for a second I thought they were going to fail their mission.

What also stood out is Zare's refusal to escape the Empire, with him instead staying to find his sister. It was a mature moment on Ezra's part to accept this, and one wonders if we'll see Zare again in the future and what his fate will be. Will he find his sister, or will he be a faceless stormtrooper fighting for the flag of Imperial fascism? Or will he be a puppet for the Inquisitor?

The animation style is much easier on the eyes than the more angular designs of The Clone Wars, and the show looks great. The old concepts like the AT-DP (a Joe Johnston creation) fit seamlessly into the design canon, and the Imperial transports (apparently reused from an Episode I design) also blend right in. Kevin Kiner's score was equally appropriate and I didn't pick out any modified cues this time, so it was nice to not play "spot the OT music" for once.

Breaking Ranks is another fine episode to follow the excellent Rise of the Old Masters, and while the general story of intercepting cargo seems to be a regular plot, it's not skimping on experience and character growth for Ezra. And there wasn't one lightsaber seen all episode.

- Charlie

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Sunday, 9 November 2014

TV REVIEW: Doctor Who - Death in Heaven

After what has been a really cracking series, last night millions of us tuned in for ‘Death in Heaven’, the Doctor Who Season 8 finale. And what a finale it was.

Picking up largely where last week’s ‘to be continued’ episode left off, with mercifully only the shortest of re-caps, we re-join The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) outside St Paul’s Cathedral with the newly revealed The Master, otherwise known as Missy (Michelle Gomez). Meanwhile, Clara (Jenna Coleman) is still trapped inside with a particularly menacing looking Cyberman, calmly attempting to talk/lie herself out of danger whilst Cyber-beings descend on every city on Earth.

With the entire planet in danger from extra-terrestrial beings, naturally it wasn’t long before UNIT turned up, this time in the form of the brilliant Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) as well as worthy leader Kate (Jemma Redgrave). Together they hauled both The Doctor and Missy off onto ‘Earth Force One’ an aeroplane with a distinctly presidential feel, as it turns out that in this sort of turn of events, The Doctor sort of becomes Earth President apparently. And with the Cybermen raising a terrifying new army, he hasn’t got a lot of choice but to get on with it.

With so much going on, this episode really benefited from its hour length. For one, we had Missy prancing maniacally about in her Victorian nanny grab, heartlessly killing people left, right and centre one second, and firing off icy, barbed one-liners the next. All credit to Michelle Gomez for her role in this series, she really has been fantastic, and a worthy nemesis for fellow Scot Peter Capaldi, who’s Doctor has developed extraordinarily well into a version of the character we haven’t really seen before. This finale allowed him to come to terms with who he is, a question that’s been hanging over the whole series arc. Turns out he’s just an idiot with a box and screwdriver, which is all we really wanted to hear. 

As well as packing a serious emotional punch through Clara and Cyber-Danny’s heart-wrenching goodbye, (after all, you can’t have a Doctor Who finale without a few tears these days) the episode was brimming with so much action that at times it felt more like a Bond film than an episode of Doctor Who. It certainly carried it off well, mind. From THAT flying scene, to the destruction of the plane to the jet-packing villains, it was real edge-of-your-seat stuff, although mixed with elements of genuine sci-fi horror as the Cybermen went all zombie on us. 

Speaking of emotional punches, it seems that, although the ‘is she or isn’t she’ departing Clara is at least returning for the Christmas Special (more on that in a moment), we have indeed said goodbye to Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) for good. Not only has he been a great returning character, but he had the unique opportunity of dying three times, twice of which were in incredibly selfless, heroic circumstances. Not only did he save the entire human race, but when given an opportunity to be re-born, sacrificed his own life for that of the young boy he once killed in Afghanistan. It was a fitting tribute to a brave and loyal soldier, particularly given the strong military themes present throughout this series. The only final sadness was that The Doctor never got to find out quite how selfless ‘P.E’ had in fact been, although again it did seem fitting that Clara and The Doctor both parted on a lie. At least for now.

It is often the case with Doctor Who that even when characters leave, we never truly feel that they are gone, gone. (The Master him/herself being a classic example). And it seems that this also will be true of Clara, particularly given the jokey feel to the final credits, including the appearance of Nick Frost (!), as Father Christmas in the Christmas Special prequel.

Frankly it can’t come around quick enough. This series has been excellent, and I can’t wait to see what Christmas and Series 9 have to offer. 



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Monday, 3 November 2014

TV REVIEW: Doctor Who - Dark Water

Dark Water is the first of the two part finale for this series of Doctor Who and it's a pretty barnstorming episode to kick it all off with questions and revelations in just about equal measure. The shocks come quickly with Danny tragically run over in the episode's moments. A grief stricken Clara to demand the Doctor to help him, threatening him with the loss of the TARDIS if he doesn't do so. The Doctor of course agrees to help and via Clara's strong psychic link with Danny's timeline, they end up at the mysterious 3W with Missy pretending to be a customer service droid. Meanwhile, Danny finds himself in the afterlife with Seb, toying with the decision to delete his consciousness and get rid of his memories forever. However, there hides something much more sinister within Missy's plan and it's not long before Cybermen start walking the streets of London. Again.

Whether or not you saw the twist coming, the Missy reveal introduces a whole bucketload of implications into the Whoniverse as well as bringing back one of the Doctor's most infamous nemeses. Chief amongst which is the idea of gender and regeneration. If Missy can come back as a woman, so too can the Doctor. I can't quite get rid of the nagging feeling that this is merely tokenism, however good Michelle Gomez is, (which is very - extremely - phenomenally good), a way to shut up those calling for more dynamic female characters or, whisper it, a female Doctor. After all, Missy's another classically Moffat mystery woman who just happens to be a Time Lord this time. Forgive me if I don't hold my breath for new and improved female characters.

That being said, I am loving the Clara that we've had this season. Much more interesting than simpering, without a mystery within her to be solved, she's simply just trying to get by as the Doctor's companion as well as navigating her relationship with Danny. The two contrasting scenes with the Doctor at the opening of the episode, first in the volcano and then back in the TARDIS were both expertly constructed. The volcano one in particular was masterfully done with the switching of power dynamics as the Doctor repeatedly called Clara's bluff and the quiet rage with which she dealt with him was solid work from Jenna Coleman. 

The second scene, in which the Doctor revealed he'd simply allowed Clara to act out that scenario, could have come across as another classic manipulation of her. Instead, it's much more emotional; he uses her fantasy to allow her to vocalise her grief before revealing that he'd do just about anything to help her. Given the disconnect and uneasy tension that there has been in the episodes leading up to this, it's a strong resolution for the pair and one which will clearly be tested in the second part of this finale.

The rest of the episode focused on the set up for the second part as we slowly learnt of Missy's plans. Some excellent comedy moments peppered the dialogue, particularly from the Doctor reacting to Missy or Seb's bureaucratic simpering, but the slow sinister reveal of the Cybermen was the strongest point. From creepy, gooey skeletons slowly turning their heads to that incredibly good shot of Clara sat in front of a standing Cyberman, completely oblivious to its existence, the episode utilised the inherent menace in its villains without playing its hand too easily. They've been a little guilty of overexposure recently, especially in the RTD years, but Moffat has been a bit more inventive, literally using an arm at one point to convey enough suspense without trotting out another clunking costume.

The greatest aspect of this episode though had to be the pace. We've often commented in these reviews that many an episode of Doctor Who would be improved if they had a little more time to set everything up or allow for a solid payoff. Too often, these things are rush and as a result, the quality of the episode diminishes. In Dark Water though, the pacing is spot on, the necessity of splitting the story into two parts allowing for everything to breathe a little and for the atmosphere to be carefully established. The emotional opening scenes soon give way to a mystery thriller and the episode felt much stronger as a result. When that cliffhanger comes around, it feels earned, not hurried. 

Next week sees the finale play out and Jen will be with you to see these reviews through to the end of the series. My two cents on the finale as a whole is that it's been a frustrating mix of highs and lows. It started exceptionally well with the uniform excellence of the first four episodes, but since then, it's been a little wobbly. When it hits the scary highs that it did with Listen, the thrills of Into the Dalek or the riotous fun of Robot of Sherwood, the series is fantastic and brilliantly entertaining. Dark Water harks back to that run and I hope it continues next week.

- Becky

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FILM REVIEW: Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler follows the story of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), an enigmatic and intelligent man who wanders around Los Angeles in middle of the night trying to sell stolen materials from construction sites. By pure chance, he encounters a car accident and a filming crew that arrives at the site almost immediately to attain shocking footage for morning news. Driven by huge ambition, Lou decides to join this shady and cynical chase for information and soon finds himself profiting from human tragedies. In pursuit of money and recognition, his methods become more questionable and increasingly psychopathic.

The film is a directing debut for screenwriter Dan Gilroy, previously most famous for writing one of unproduced drafts for notorious Superman Lives project in the late 90s. While it might be his first time, the production itself feels very assured under his helm. Gripping from start to finish, the film somewhat blurs the line between pulse-pounding thriller, drama and dark comedy, always alternating between those multiple genre elements with impressive ease. It's quite an achievement for a first-timer.

Jake Gyllenhaal essentially plays an evil twin to his Robert Graysmith from David Fincher’s Zodiac. His character is driven by similar obsession, although with much more ominous results. One of the things he does really well is to use his pleasant and innocent appearance, that we know from other films, and turn it into something perverted and disturbing. And the most horrifying thing is that we never stop liking him, no matter what he’s doing. All of which is just as much of a testament to smart writing, as it is to acting. Although, one thing the audience can be wondering about is why isn’t Lou Bloom able to achieve his desired success through more conventional channels? Surely, with that level of intelligence and adaptability, he would be able to secure a more prestigious job? The script doesn’t really tell us enough about this man, leaving his motivation and history largely a mystery.

What’s additionally interesting about Bloom is that he never really evolves or changes throughout the story; there is no arc for him in this drama. Instead, he remains a constant element around which everything else changes. The way this man manages to spoil and corrupt almost everyone close to him is one single most disturbing aspect about Gilroy’s script and is illustrated through two crucial relationships. One of them is with Nina, an ageing KWLA television station news director. This woman is aware of her declining position within her trade and seeks the sociopathic contributions of Lou to increase viewing figures. All of that against moral objection of her assistants, as well as her own. Similarly to Gyllenhaal’s part, she is sketched only as a silhouette and remains largely enigmatic. Rene Russo takes advantage of that ambiguous material and manages to add a lot of shades to enrich what could have been a one-note supporting role.

The other crucial character must be Richard, a homeless man, whom Lou brain-drains into helping him with this shady reporting enterprise. Fragile and vulnerable, he doesn’t ask a lot of questions. Or even speak a lot, for that matter, but one can see struggle in his eyes, delicately conveyed by Riz Ahmed’s understated performance. He’s about the only real human character in this picture and almost a representation of Lou’s suppressed and abused conscience.

Nightcrawler, by its very premise, comments on the nature of media and how it distorts facts to create its own, very much fictional, narrative for masses to follow. Ignoring the obvious facts and important angles, news reporters pursue high ratings and prestige within this business. The honest and researched journalism is presented almost as a threat to those aspirations which, of course makes one wonder whether commercially-driven media have any real value at all, especially within this interconnected modern world. If money and success are the only deciding factors, are we not creating an increasingly psychopathic society in the process? This is the question Gilroy seems to be asking with this picture. And while his proposal might be in many respects quite obvious, it doesn’t make it any less relevant.

From a technical standpoint, Nightcrawler presents a solid work all around. Robert Elswit’s moody cinematography once again creates a very Fincher-esque impression of neo-noir thriller, while James Newton Howard’s score serves mostly to deepen the almost perpetually nocturnal vibe of this piece. Only occasionally does the composer employ woodwinds and warmer colour palette but it is used to sardonically show the audience how big this ever widening gap between the monster Lou Bloom actually is and the human being he’s trying to present himself as to other people.

While addressing some of valid and serious issues, the film never really stops to entertain. It’s constant juggling of seemingly contradicting tones and conventions that is extremely well handled by the director. He also manages to avoid some more obvious narrative pitfalls in his tightly-written script. While the central acting performance is among its strongest selling points and will presumably be getting some recognition during the upcoming award season, all of the supporting cast is excellent. If there is one regrettable thing about Dan Gilroy’s debut, it would be that it never really goes far enough in its grotesquery. Indeed, some things could have been pushed even further to match Lou Bloom’s level of psychopathy as well as intensity of Gyllenhaal’s performance. As a result, Nightcrawler is sometimes a bit tame but always intriguing and intelligent.

- Karol

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